How many times have you heard a speaker – either on stage, or privately before or after they spoke – complain about one of the following time slots?:
- First session of the morning
- Right before the keynote speaker
- Right after the keynote speaker
- Just before lunch
- Right after lunch
- A breakout session up against a “main stage” session
- The last session of the day
- The session just before the cocktail reception
- The last session of the conference/event.*
Seriously? If you do the math, this means that the only “good” time slot at a conference is the keynote session.
This attitude is hogwash. Unless you are a consistent keynote-level speaker, then be happy with the time slot you get – deal with the cards you were dealt.
It is your job as a speaker to create a compelling session title and description, potentially work with the organizer on time slots and to build your brand as a solid speaker. These things may improve your time slot, if you are lucky.
But ultimately, your time slot is your time slot. You need to turn it into the best session you can for the attendees.
It is in fact your responsibility as the speaker to get the audience engaged in your presentation. A good speaker will get an audience excited regardless of timing and environmental factors. Saying “It was a dead audience” usually says more about your performance than the audience.
So what can you do differently based on your time slot? Most of my time slot examples above fall into 4 general audience challenges: 1) Sleepy/not awake; 2) Restless, anxious; 3) Extra high expectations; and 4) Fewer attendees than expected. Here are a few suggestions for each scenario:
1. Sleepy/Not Awake: If you are the first speaker of the day or follow lunch and you think the audience is a bit sleepy, then it is your job to wake them up. Have some fun and don’t be afraid to be spontaneous. Just do a few things to wake the audience up out of the gate:
- Jump off the stage into the audience
- Sing a few lines of a song
- Run around the audience
- Make up a mini-dance on the fly
- Make a humorous (or serious) comment about a previous session, the location of the event, the day if it has some significance
- Tell a joke
- Get the A/V person to play some raucous music to get the audience fired up.
2. Restless/Anxious: If you are standing between the audience and the cocktail reception or lunch, then you probably need to pick up your pace, shorten your ad lib stories and take the audience on a journey into the cocktail or meal time. It is your job to transition them into a nice lunch or the relaxing and anticipated end of the day. Hold their attention through a rapid fire approach, a list of tactics they can’t ignore or stories that captivate their attention.
Find ways to get the audience involved, skip or go more quickly than planned through slides that are not critical to the message. Do what you can to try and finish early and get the audience out of your session and first in line at the lunch buffet or drink line.
3. Extra high expectations: If you are following a great keynote speaker then you should use their session and passion as a set-up to your presumably more tactical session. Reference things that the keynote speaker said or key message points. Act like you planned your session to elaborate on what the keynote speaker said. Ideally you may have had a chance as a fellow speaker to meet the keynote speaker – reference conversation you may have had.
Act like you belong on the same stage as the keynote speaker … but don’t lose your mojo and feel you are competing with him or her. Stay focused on getting your message across clearly and simply with strong examples and stories. The keynote speaker may have made people laugh hysterically, or get emotional or simply have been entertaining or inspiring. But your opportunity may in fact be to take the audience’s excitement and provide them with examples and tactics to bring the keynote speaker’s vision alive.
4. Fewer attendees than expected: If you have a small number of audience members because your session is up against a more popular session or one of the last ones of the conference you should plan a more intimate approach to your session. It likely isn’t your fault that your session has a small number of attendees, so don’t dwell on it to yourself or with the audience.
Try to get the audience members to move closer to the front and closer to each other, creating the appearance and feeling of a smaller room. (See Turn a Small Room Into an Intimate Conversation.) Try to get the audience involved – asking questions, providing suggestions on where you should focus most, even contributing their own experiences and views. Be careful, however, that your session doesn’t get derailed by one or two people in the audience. The others in the room will still expect you to deliver on the promised topic (and rate you based on that).
Whatever the situation is for your session, don’t blame the audience or time of day. Kill the excuses. Understand the context of your time slot and run with it, even turn it into an advantage if you can.
* The one exception I might have to the “there is no bad time slot” rule is when you have the last session/time slot of a 2- or 3-day conference and most everybody has headed to the airport. This can be a bit disheartening when you think about all the time you put into your presentation. But it is what it is. Perhaps use the opportunity to experiment, take some risks. But be a professional, make the best of it and leave the few attendees in your session remarking that it was one of the best sessions of the conference and they are glad they stayed until the end.